In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Maori women in New Zealand weren’t encouraged to participate in public life. But that never stopped Whina Cooper. Born Hohepine Te Wake in 1895, Whina never shied from forging her own path, becoming a pioneering tribal leader and eventually being granted the title Te Whaea o te Motu (“Mother of the Nation”) from her fellow Maori women.
Whina (short for “Josephine,” the Christianized version of her first name) was the first daughter of tribal elder Heremia Te Wake and his second wife, Kare Pauro Kawatihi. She had four half-brothers and three half-sisters from her father’s first marriage.
She was attracted to politics even as a child. In her obituary, British newspaper The Independent noted, “She defied convention and Maori tradition from an early age, eschewing games with other children to listen to tribal elders debating ownership of land.” Her father recognized her keen intellect and leadership skills and favored her over his sons, beginning a lifelong rift between Whina and her siblings.
Maori culture is community based, with local tribes gathering in the marae (sacred meeting space) to decide everything from ownership rights to engagements. At the turn of the century, women were barred from speaking in the marae. But this disenfranchisement did not stop Whina from becoming a local leader.
At 18, she organized civil disobedience to keep a British farmer from draining a swamp that the local tribes used for shell fishing. While Whina’s father challenged the farmer’s lease in court, Whina and a group of young people came at night to fill in the drainage ditches that were dug during the day. Eventually they were charged with trespassing, but by that time the farmer’s lease had been revoked and the swamp was saved.
A few years later, Whina eloped, without the approval of the community. She and her husband were exiled from their home and forced to live off the land until the priest who had married them heard of their circumstances. He advanced them a loan, allowing them to purchase Whina’s late father’s house and the general store in their hometown.
Whina proved to be such an astute businesswoman that she was able to pay off the priest’s loan in just three years. She also opened a post office, another store in town, and two branch stores in neighboring towns. She returned to public life, building a medical clinic and a community center that allowed women to speak in meetings.
While collaborating with New Zealand’s national government in a program to create Maori farming collectives, Whina met Bill Cooper, a fellow Maori politician. Romance blossomed, and when Whina’s first husband died in 1935, she moved in with Cooper. As she was also pregnant with Cooper’s child at the time, the scandal once again ostracized her from the community. Once again, she slowly rebuilt her standing, eventually serving on her tribe’s executive committee from 1946 to 1952.
After Bill Cooper died in 1949, Whina sought a fresh start in Auckland, where she immediately became involved in Maori causes. She joined the first conference of the Maori Women’s Welfare League in 1951 and was elected president. During her time leading the league, she initiated programs to improve housing for Maori immigrants to New Zealand cities, and addressed ra.ci.al discrimination in housing, employment and health services.
Whina remained involved in local and national politics until 1974, when her failing health led her to declare her exit from public life. That vow lasted all of one year, until she was persuaded to be the face of a campaign fighting to preserve Maori ownership of their traditional lands. The 80-year-old, arthritic Whina Cooper led a 1,000-kilometer march from the far north of the country to Parliament to deliver a petition signed by 60,000 Maori natives.
Whina continued to be active until her death at age 98 in 1994. In 1990, she spoke at the opening ceremony of the Auckland Commonwealth Games, reminding her listeners of the purpose of the Treaty of Waitangi—and, indeed, of her own life as an activist: “…so that we could all live as one nation in Aotearoa.”
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